Vice

Vice

Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

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The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Exodus: God And Kings

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic film. It is epic like the epics of old from David Lean and C.B. DeMille. And like modern day epics from James Cameron and, well, Ridley Scott (director of E:GAK). Which is to say, Exodus Gods and Kings is big, bold and ambitious.

The settings and the vistas are magnificent. In the old days, an epic’s trailer would mention “a cast of thousands.” In modern filmmaking, thousands of humans are not actually required to be on hand, but the shots of huge slave villages and giant projects (such as the Pyramids) provide a realistic looking depiction of what life may have been like way back in the B.C. day.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses learns of his true lineage and, after several years away from the center of Hebrew servitude to the Egyptians, returns to set his people free.

Moses goes into the mountains to talk to God. The Burning Bush is there, but the voice of God is represented by a young child (Issac Andrews) whose messages to Moses are sometimes delivered rather sternly. The kid does a great job.

How to convince pharaoh Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) to free the slaves? How about a series of plagues? 3-D embellishes the horror of the plagues, which range from locusts to flies to frogs to boils on skins. The final plague, death of a family’s firstborn, does the trick.

The exodus of the Jews climaxes with their pause at the shore of the Red Sea. Bale’s Moses and Scott do the trick of ensuring safe passage a bit differently from Charlton Heston’s Moses and DeMille.

Bale is excellent as Moses, strong but not overbearing. Edgerton seems a bit uncomfortable as Ramesses. The Egyptian style which has men encircling their eyes in eye shadow makes him look feminine, which I don’t think is the intended effect.

Also in the film’s cast are Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro.

Exodus: Gods and Kings runs 2:23 from the opening Fox logo to director Ridley Scott’s touching dedication of the movie to his brother Tony Scott, also a film director, who committed suicide in 2012.

If you like epic films and if you like Christian Bale, don’t miss it. But I can’t designate E:GAK a “must-see” film. (You may have many opportunities to see this film down the road as it could well become a TV classic for religious holiday viewing, just like The Ten Commandments was for many a decade.)

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell doesn’t really have a repertory company, but all four of his lead actors in American Hustle have worked for him in either 2010’s The Fighter or 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. They all perform at a high level in American Hustle, working from a script that gives each of the four opportunities to shine. On January 16, expect a name or two or three from this ensemble to receive Oscar noms.

The root word of con, as in con man or con game, is confidence. In American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) gains the confidence of marks who believe that he can get them loans for 50K. But first, they have to give him negotiable checks for 5-thousand to get the ball rolling.

After Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party and discovers they share a love of Duke Ellington, they become lovers and partners in crime. Sydney joins him in his con game. She fakes a British accent and implies that she can get money from friends in high places in the UK banking world.

When the con man and woman are caught by the feds, they are enlisted to aid the FBI in scamming politicians. American Hustle is not the story of the Abscam sting, which saw politicians accepting bribes. But true-life events inform much of what happens in AH.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the agent who runs the sting and becomes enamored with Sydney. Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) seems at first to be a shallow, unaware housewife but later is revealed to be more clever than initially revealed.

Carmen Polito (Jeremy Renner with a pompadour Conway Twitty would’ve envied) is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey who wants to help his state get the money to help develop Atlantic City. While setting him up for the sting, Irving finds that he actually likes Carmen—which makes things interesting.

Another Russell alum (who appeared in Silver Linings Playbook), Robert DeNiro, plays a Miami mobster gets involved when a fake Arab sheik is presented as the deep pockets money man. Louis CK has a small role as agent DiMaso’s boss.

American Hustle has all the elements a movie needs to succeed: a compelling story, interesting characters and a clever telling of that story. It’s not the best movie of 2013, but it will show up on numerous top ten lists for the year, as it should.

Out of the Furnace

Gritty is the best word to describe the setting, the characters and the story in Out of the Furnace. Director Scott Cooper, who struck gold in 2009 with his rookie effort Crazy Heart, falls a bit short with OOTF. He has assembled a strong cast that works hard to tell a revenge story that’s, unfortunately, not unlike other revenge stories.

The Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the rundown town of North Braddock, PA, just a few miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Russell goes to work at the town’s steel mill where his father worked. Rodney wants something different. He seeks it via gambling and bare knuckle fighting.

One night while driving after drinking a few beers, Russell hits another car, killing a kid. He goes to prison for a brief sentence. Rodney, meanwhile, goes to the Iraq war and returns with demons.

When Rodney runs up gambling debts to John (Willem Dafoe), he begs for a chance to earn money in a fight in a backwoods venue run by outlaw Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Harlan is a meth dealer, a killer and an all-around bad egg. The film’s opening scene demonstrates his temper and abusive behavior.

The fight is vicious. Rodney takes the dive he promised, but, as he and John return to town, Harlan and his henchmen block their way and detain them. Russell then plots his course of revenge.

Local police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker) warns Russell against chasing down the culprit on his home turf. When Russell goes after Harlan anyway, the rural cop (who’d been alerted by Barnes) sends him home. Ultimately the showdown occurs back in North Braddock after Russell lures Harlan to town.

Zoe Saldana appears as Russell’s girlfriend. Sam Sheppard has a small role as Russell’s uncle.

Cooper hits several sweet notes in the film, including an effective sequence that cuts back and forth between a deer hunt and a boxing match. And the acting talent he has assembled is impressive. But once the film’s story is established, its outcome is predictable.

Christian Bale again shows his range as an actor in this working class tale. His strong performance may be the best reason to see Out of the Furnace.

The Dark Knight Rises

This is one of the all-time great films. The story, the screenplay, the soundtrack, the acting, the directing, the stunts, the effects—all winners!

It’s the story and its telling that give TDKR a specialness that the other Christopher Nolan Bat movies didn’t have. The others had bombast and standout performances, but TDKR has more heart and soul. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman is heroic, to be sure, but is presented here as more human and more vulnerable (in numerous ways). His transition from a limping, Howard Hughes type recluse back to Bat mode sets the film in motion.

Nolan and Nolan (director and co-writer Christopher and his co-writer brother Jonathan) give memorable lines to several of the key players. Michael Caine as Alfred is in tears as he advises Wayne not to go back into the Bat suit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake, a longtime Wayne admirer, tells Wayne his emotional story of life in an orphanage. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon hesitates to tell the truth about Batman, lest he mar the legacy of Harvey Dent.

The ladies are better in this Bat movie. Anne Hathaway as Selina Kay/Catwoman is a beguiling mix of evil and good. Plus, she looks terrific in the leather jumpsuit. Marion Cotillard as Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate shares a romantic interlude with Bruce Wayne and is a key character in significant plot points.

Tom Hardy is evil incarnate as Bane, the terrorist who brings fear and havoc to Gotham. His mask and haunting voice bring to mind classic bad guy Darth Vader. Bane’s violent acts will prompt recollections of NYC’s 9/11 terrorist attacks. His band of thugs commandeers certain defense assets to do harm to Gotham and its defenders.

If this is a movie you plan to see, get into your movie house sooner rather than later. TDKR has content you want to enjoy on the big screen (IMAX, preferably) instead of a small screen. This review contains no spoilers, but others will. Be careful monitoring online forums and social media feeds, so as not to be burned by those who tell too much.

“The Dark Knight Rises” has iconic scenes and dialogue that will endure in my personal movie memory scrapbook for a long time. Expect multiple awards nominations and wins at year’s end. The movie adds another notch to Christopher Nolan’s reputation as one of our great movie storytellers. Like his “Inception,” TDKR is a movie to be enjoyed many times over. But don’t wait for the DVD or Blu-Ray. Witness true greatness at a theater near you ASAP.